Talmud Tips

For the week ending 23 June 2018 / 10 Tammuz 5778

Zevachim 58 - 64

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
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The Unaltered Altar Location

“How did they know the exact location for the mizbe’ach (altar)?”

This question is posed by the gemara in order to understand how the location of the mizbe’ach was determined in the Second Beit Hamikdash. In last week’s “Talmud Tips” column we discussed how the location for building the First Beit Hamikdash was correctly discerned by King David. This week we delve into a related topic, determining the exact location for rebuilding the mizbe’ach in the Second Beit Hamikdash.

Seventy years had passed since the tragedy of the Jewish People’s exile from the Land of Israel and the utter destruction of the Beit Hamikdash. Now, Ezra and the Anshei Knesset Hagedola (“Men of the Great Assembly”) — who included the prophets Chagai Zecharia and Malachi — led the return from exile and the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash in Jerusalem. Our gemara points out that from the remaining foundations of the walls they could discern what area was holy for the azara courtyard and what area was holy for the heichal structure (Rashi). But there was no physical remnant at the site of the Beit Hamikdash to indicate the location for the mizbe’ach. So how did they know where to rebuild the mizbe’ach?

Rabbi Elazar said, “They saw an altar that was built, and the great ministering angel Michael was standing and offering sacrifices on it.”

Rabbi Yitzchak Nafcha said, “They saw the ash of Yitzchak, which was situated in that location.”

Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani said, “From the rest of the area of the Beit Hamikdash they smelled the fragrance of incense, but from that one location they smelled burnt animal limbs.”

The Maharsha explains the meaning of each of these three opinions. According to Rabbi Elazar they were shown by G-d the “Mizbe’ach of Above.” We are taught that there is a “Jerusalem of Above” that corresponds to the Jerusalem in this world. They are in perfect alignment. Therefore, G-d showed them the “Mizb’each of Above” since it was located directly over the exact spot for rebuilding the mizbe’ach in the Second Beit Mamikdash.

Rabbi Yitzchak Nafcha said that they were shown the ash of Yitzchak Avinu, gathered together in a specific location. This was an indication for the location of the mizbe’ach. Although Yitzchak was not actually sacrificed, his willingness to serve G-d completely was deemed by G-d as if the sacrifice was fulfilled and actualized. The Maharsha elaborates by connecting our gemara to a verse and a Midrash. The verse states: And Avraham named that place G-d will see, as it is said to this day… Rashi, in his commentary on Chumash (Ber. 22:14), cites a Midrash which explains: G-d will see this sacrifice until this day, and that this sacrifice will serve as atonement for the Jewish People. “It will be said until this day in all future generations: G-d will see the ash that is gathered there and serving as atonement.” This ash showed where the mizbe’ach was in the time of Avraham Avinu, and also where the mizbe’ach should be in the Beit Hamikdash.

Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmeni's stance is not based on what they were shown by G-d, but what G-d miraculously caused them to smell. During the time of the First Beit Hamikdash the fragrance of the incense that was offered could be sensed throughout the entire Beit Hamikdash, and even extended as far as the city of Jericho. Now, as they began rebuilding the Beit Hamikdash, G-d miraculously caused the fragrance of incense to be sensed, but not in every site in the larger area that would become the rebuilt Beit Hamikdash. Although the scent pervaded in all other places throughout the Beit Hamikdash area, in one specific location it was only the aroma of burned animal limbs that could be sensed, nullifying the permeating fragrance of the incense in that one spot. This indicated the place where the mizbe’ach had once stood, and showed the exact place where it should be rebuilt and stand once more. (Maharsha; also see the Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Beit Habechira, ch. 2, who rules that the mizbe’ach had a very precise location, one that could never be changed, and quotes the source for this ruling.)

There is additional historical significance to the place of the mizbe’ach, as the Rambam details there. It is of interest to note, as our Sages teach, that Adam was created from that spot and offered a sacrifice there. They state, “Man was created from the very place where he would find atonement.” (Ber. Rabbah 14:6)

  • Zevachim 62a

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